HELENA — Four of the six medical marijuana providers who are suing the U.S. government over last year's raids of pot businesses across Montana have been arrested on federal drug charges, their lawyer in the civil lawsuit said Tuesday.
The medical marijuana businesses of the four plaintiffs arrested Tuesday and last Thursday were among more than 26 homes, businesses and warehouses searched in sweeping raids last spring that shut down many providers and cast a pall over Montana's booming pot business.
The lawsuit, which challenges the constitutionality of raiding medical marijuana providers who were operating under a voter-approved Montana law, is before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a district judge rejected their claims in January.
The attorney in the lawsuit, Paul Livingston of New Mexico, said he did not know why the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are being targeted now.
"It seems senseless to us. It's as if the government wants to show how devastating they can be to people's lives because they're involved in this business," Livingston said.
One of those arrested, Randy Leibenguth of Belgrade, said he does not believe the timing of the arrests has anything to do with the civil lawsuit. His business, MCM Caregivers, was raided in March 2011.
"They were taking a year to gather information to come up with a good case and make it hard for us to fight back," he said Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Fehr said federal prosecutors did not have comment on the new arrests. Federal prosecutors have repeatedly refused to comment on the raids and subsequent prosecution of medical marijuana providers.
Leibenguth and another Belgrade medical marijuana provider, Luke Mulvaugh, were arrested last Thursday along with Leibenguth's wife, Stephanie. They spent five days in jail before being released on Monday, Leibenguth said.
They were indicted on charges of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, manufacture and distribution of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute marijuana, according to court documents. The conspiracy charge carries a minimum of 10 years to life in prison and a $5 million fine if convicted, while the two other charges carry a punishment of at least five years in prison each.
Paul Schmidt of Sleeping Giant Caregivers in Helena and Chris Williams of Montana Cannabis, which had locations across the state, were indicted Tuesday, Livingston said. Copies of the charging papers were not immediately available.
A fifth plaintiff in the lawsuit was not raided last spring, while the sixth plaintiff has already pleaded guilty to earlier charges related to the raids, Livingston said.
Chris Lindsey, the former attorney for Montana Cannabis, also was indicted on Tuesday on conspiracy, marijuana manufacturing and firearm possession charges. He is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Williams has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of the raids. He told The Associated Press last month that he expected to be arrested and that he planned to fight the charges instead of taking a plea deal like many other raided pot providers.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the federal government say the heavy-handed governmental approach has countermanded the will of Montana voters who approved the state's medical marijuana law in 2004 that allowed them to grow and produce the drug for medical consumption.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy dismissed their claims in January, ruling that state law does not shield medical marijuana providers from federal prosecution. He cited a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the supremacy clause applies in medical marijuana cases.
The supremacy clause says that federal law prevails if there is any conflict between state and federal statutes.
The plaintiffs have appealed, and Livingston said the lawsuit is an important test of the division between federal and state laws regulating the use of marijuana.
"It demonstrates the clash between the government and the states which have made it legal," Livingston said. "The government has just devastated the business, the industry and the caregivers in a seemingly senseless way."